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Thanks To An Oscar Nom for the Documentary “Navalny,” Cinematographer Niki Waltl is in the Spotlight


With Oscar night fast approaching — this Sunday, March 12th — it’s time to get inside some of the nominated films in various categories such as Best Documentary Feature. Among those nominees is “Navalny” — which details the struggle of imprisoned Putin opposition leader Alexey Navalny. The film shines a new, brighter light on his plight in a way a basic news story can never accomplish. Along with the praise for the film, its cinematographer Niki Waltl has also garnered attention for his fine visual work.

Austrian born and bred, Waltl first picked up a camera as a teenager. As part of the ‘90s popular skate- and snowboard culture, its videos first sparked his interest. Once he started shooting his friends when participating in both winter sports, he got a taste of filmmaking. In 2010, Waltl moved to Barcelona to study Direction of Photography (DoP) at the Centre d’Estudis Cinematografics de Catlunya (CECC). Revealing a talent for camerawork, he got commissioned work for such major companies as Converse, Nike, GoPro and Vans. He also produced commercials and other productions for Habitat, Element Brand, Chocolate — some of the biggest skateboard companies worldwide. This filming took him to China, South Africa, Morocco, Kyrgyzstan and other parts of the world.

Through noted below-the-line professional Frank Berger, Waltl received training in film lighting in Holland, who was Robby Müller’s gaffer for several years and worked with legendary Danish director Lars von Trier. Today, Waltl went on to work worldwide as a freelance DoP, with a focus on character-driven documentaries and fiction films. “Navalny,”  the 2022 documentary — which tells the tale of imprisoned politician Alexey Navalny, controversial dissident and Valdimir Putin’s arch opponent — has been AAC director of photography Waltl’s most notable work. After it premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award for Best US Documentary and the Festival Favorite Award, it started racking up more accolades and nominations including the BAFTA award for best Doc. And now, “Navalny” is nominated for the 2023 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.

Q: How have all these awards and nominations changed your life?

NW: Basically, we’ve been on a journey with this film since it premiered at Sundance last year, screening it at festivals and promoting it. With the recent nominations, this journey has kept going and I was able to meet many great people on the way. And sure, new doors have been opening for me as a cinematographer. I’m very thankful to be a part of this project. The success of the film is also bittersweet, as Alexey Navalny is still in prison, in solitary confinement in a Russian gulag. It’s because of him and his bravery that we even got to make this film.

Q: Did you ever think the film would get such a reaction?

nikiNW: In a way, yes. As soon as I got the call to work on this project I knew that this is a defining story of our time and that a film about it will possibly find a very big audience. At the same time, it is all quite unreal. That the reaction would be as big as it is now, with the academy award nomination, and winning the BAFTA, I mean nobody expected that and I’m rather speechless.

Q: What do you think made “Navalny” such a contender?

NW: I think it’s a combination of things. First and foremost, because of the urgency of the story and the popularity of Alexey Navalny, the whole world was following what happened with his poisoning, his recovery and the developments after. Also, the war in Ukraine has indirectly made our film more relevant. But I think it’s also a good film on its own merits. I really like the work of our director Daniel Roher and what he created with the team. The editors (Langdon Page and Maya Hawke) did a great job, the same with the music composed by Marius de Vries, and etc. 

Q: What were the most difficult scenarios to shoot?

NW: Maybe the phone call scene. We shot it at 4 am for logistical reasons and thought we’d be back in bed after 15 minutes of shooting as the prank idea probably wouldn’t work. What followed was the now almost infamous phone call that went on for about 40 minutes. I had the camera on my shoulder the whole time and was giving my very best to operate it as well as I could. 40 minutes is long for a handheld take!

Q: What cameras were used and how was this alike or different from other films that you’ve shot?

NW: It was shot mainly on RED cameras. I own a RED Gemini so bringing that to set was a no brainer. I think documentaries are more like that — cameras get chosen for practical reasons. On narrative projects there’s more time for testing equipment and choosing which tool is the best to help tell that specific story. I was very happy with the RED here though and we did rent the large format version for the interviews (RED Monstro) just to give the interviews an extra special feeling and look you know.

Q: What did you learn about the whole political situation in Russia?

NW: On the one hand, I see the complexity of it. The current political situation in Russia is based on a long history that obviously dates back to the Soviet Union and times before that. There’s a lot to learn and it’s an ongoing process as things keep unfolding in Russia and Ukraine. On the other hand, things seem simple — I do think things can immediately change for the better the moment Putin’s regime is taken out of power.

Q: How has this whole experience influenced your direction professionally and personally?

NW: I actually think that working on this film has changed me personally much more than professionally. The time we spent with Navalny, his family and team, the developments we were allowed to witness — this all has had a deep impact on me. It’s a bit like waking up to the reality of the world we live in right now. It does feel like it’s on fire and that it’s important to be aware of developments, to have an opinion and stand up  for it.

Q: Do you think the film can affect Navalny’s future, good or bad?

NW: I do hope and believe that it has had a positive effect for him. So many people know about his story now. I mean, he was in the news before that, obviously, but the film keeps him there. As we know, Alexey Navalny is still in prison, where he continues to be one of Russia’s fiercest anti-war activists and we can’t allow him to be forgotten in any way. The film definitely helps with that.

Soul Empowerment Coach Birgitta Visser Says Success Comes From Becoming Your “Authentic Self”

BE-com-ing Authentically Me”, by Birgitta Visser

A new book, “BE-com-ing Authentically Me,” offers readers a chance to make a unique New Year's resolution: Be true to yourself. And its author, Birgitta Visser, says it could be the key to your success. Visser is a Soul Empowerment Coach. But what does that mean, exactly? 

As a Soul Empowerment Coach, she aims to align the inner spiritual essence of life with the outer life. In Visser’s case, her outer life has seen difficult days and she’s often grappled with a turbulent journey, which served as a steep learning curve. Visser first made headlines as a model and was linked with celebs like Johnny Depp, Liam Gallagher of Oasis, and others. But this looker had other plans besides showing off her pretty face. Most notably, she’s written a book that has turned heads. 

Visser has multiple intelligences besides having been a successful model. The relocated European has been a bartender, promo girl, dog walker, healer, web designer, created her own organic soap line, designed jewelry, taught holistic workshops, and worked many jobs in the corporate world. Being a nomad and a seeker, Visser travelled the globe extensively, leaving an indelible impression on all those she met, while making a home wherever she roamed. 

vis medIn her recent book, “BE-com-ing Authentically Me,” the Dutch-born former model hopes that by sharing her many life experiences she may provide a guiding light to those who've had their own challenges in life. As she states emphatically, “I keep telling anyone who'll listen, the most important ingredient to success is to always be you, not what the world wants you to be. Life is really about being your authentic self, and not being led by the opinions and the judgement of others. Society conditions us and labels us that we are supposed to be a certain type of person. I’m here to tell you, you can be the person you want to be despite what society might be telling you. It doesn’t matter what people think of you or if they even understand you. It matters what you think of you. It matters that you understand you.”

51h-bIrwe9L. AC SY780 Writing “BE-com-ing Authentically Me,” reinvigorated Visser, driving her to help others. So motivated, she declares, “We’re in this dot com world and people don’t even understand what ‘dot-com’ means. Believe it or not, 'dot com' is actually derived from Latin, meaning ‘being together.’ The idea of ‘being’ in turn leads back to becoming the person you truly are. It’s not easy for most of us to be true to ourselves. But I’m hoping I can inspire people to take a breath and re-examine the person they are, and give them the tools to become the person they want to be.”

For Visser, she has transformed her own life experiences — being abused, both as a child and as an adult — into becoming a better version of herself. And rather than let that painful history destroy her life, she wrote “BE-com-ing Authentically Me” to help educate people on how to deal with life's traumas. As the statuesque brunette notes, “My book has touched so many people from all walks of life and many of them have reached out to me. I hope my book helps people. There’s no better feeling when you're able to give inspiration and guidance to someone and it actually helps them improve their lives. And it all begins with loving yourself. Your ‘authentic’ self. Then you need to live life to the fullest and not just “exist. And you need to live NOW.”

The name for her spiritual outlook — Power Soul Healing — was given to her back in 2010. As she explains, “The wording speaks for itself as it is the art of healing and empowering your own soul back to the grid of remembrance of who you most authentically are. It is about taking back your I AM Power and unbecoming and BE-com-ing through the experiences slung your way. We are all Sparks of Divine Consciousness, co- creating in the experiment of the human embodiment, so Power the I AM as much as harnessing the I AM Power of your beautiful Soul into healing yourself. Life is like the sound of music. You've got to dance before the music stops."

She adds, “What could be more beautiful than expanding your awareness and living a life of bliss?”

“BE-com-ing Authentically Me” is available on Amazon


An Evening With Tom Stoppard at the 92nd Street Y

Tom Stoppard (L) interviewed by Daniel Kehlmann. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

On the afternoon of Sunday, September 18th, at the 92nd Street Y, the brilliant English playwright, Tom Stoppard, made an absolutely splendid public appearance—his only one in New York this fall—interviewed for about an hour by German writer Daniel Kehlmann primarily about his latest work, Leopoldstadt, which will have its opening on Broadway this fall.

The title of Stoppard’s new play was arrived at at an advanced stage, with A Family Album and Cat’s Cradle both originally considered, he affirmed. Commenting on a scene added well into the play’s composition that enlarged two roles, he said, “more is good for an actor.” He stated, “I love the fact that the theatre is such an empirical art form,” noting that, for him, theatre is an organism, an event, and so the text is not stabilized. The author clarified that he was in “a false position” because there is “an assumption that one is aware of what one is up to” with respect to “the art of playwriting,” which he described as “the art of controlling the flow of information from the stage to the audience.” Stoppard reported that he thought to himself that “I’d like to write a play for that set” after he saw a production of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country which he “loved so much” and remarked that he had done so with his A Coast of Utopia. He also expressed a desire to create a play like Anton Chekhov’s but objected that he is “too literal.”

About his late discovery of his Jewish origins which was partly explained by indifference, he amusingly averred, “I didn’t have a lapse of memory—I had a lapse of character.” He recalled that after his mother died he investigated his childhood and wrote about it in an article for a magazine, admitting “That’s when I understood what it would mean to be moved by my past.” He asserted that Jewishness “doesn’t enter into his mode of living” but it “seems inadequate” that it “is just an interesting fact” about him, claiming that he is not at ease with this. His youthful affinities, he said, were more with Englishness, citing his fondness for Georgian architecture, the landscapes of J. M. W. Turner, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and the novels of Evelyn Waugh, although now he is also interested in Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig. When he first visited Czechoslovakia in his forties, he was not especially moved by the landscape—it was “a foreign country.” He added that “Autobiography is a kind of trap,” when asked why Leopoldstadt is set in Vienna rather than the Czechoslovakia where he was born.

When queried about whether he recognized the historical timeliness of his trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, he replied that “I’ve never managed to outguess history.“ And asked about whether he had written for a specific actor, he answered that he had had occasion to do so, specifically naming the late, distinguished John Wood.

Transformed by Irish Sean Nos Singing, Musician Clarissa Riddles/Purcell Redefines Her Style For All Her Audiences

Sometimes, a musician comes across the computer screen which produces a profile not just because of the music but the backstory, too. That was certainly the case for singer/songwriter Clarissa Riddles (nee Purcell) who not only found her voice through jazz but traditional Irish music as well.

Based in Nashville, the classically trained pianist and vocalist wrote the songs on her latest record, “Be Still My Soul,” “as a tribute to God and the scripture which had brought her out of an intense personal struggle into a new life.”

That provocation was confirmed by Widerside ProductionsMatt Wilder — producer of this album: “When I first met Clarissa years ago, her talent was immediately clear. A gifted and diverse singer, songwriter and painter, who, like so many great artists, had a self-destructive streak and struggled with addiction. I believe dealing with internal turmoil is part of what drives many great artists to create.

Over the years we’ve both been through many life changes — and in Clarissa’s case finding sobriety, getting married, having a child, and most of all, turning her life over to God as she understood him [to be]. I was thrilled when she approached me about making an album about redemption, recovery and faith. 

riddles-min“I recognized my own struggles in hers and in her surrender. These Celtic-flavored songs are like beautiful mystic upwellings rising from her soul as she was born into a new life. It’s healing music that envelopes and comforts you with grace, humility and beauty. A true work of art by a great artist I consider myself blessed to collaborate with.”

So upon listening to Clarissa’s melodically rich vocalizations of these recently released songs, a search into her past led to lots more releases and songs. From jazz-inflected compositions to her Irish-influenced recent productions, Riddles/Purcell is an artist-performer worth exploring.

The late 30-something grew up in Northern Virginia, near Washington DC, Fairfax, and the Annandale area. Now, the Nashville resident Purcell works part-time at the YMCA and is a full-time mother. Now that her daughter is turning eight and in school, she’s been able to commit more time to music. “I have always made money on the side with creative pursuits, little jobs, playing background music for restaurants, and selling artwork.

“Recently, I have been able to make a little extra by working for commercial music placements, advertising and some work for music library/sync licensing. But it’s been sporadic; hence the YMCA gig.”

Q: What’s your background — musically and otherwise?

CR: I’ve done music my whole life, different genres, classical training, etc. I grew up in a musical family. We were exposed to mostly classical music. My dad was a well known baritone singer and entertainer who could play and sing almost any request from the great American songbook. My mom had a beautiful voice and sang in the church choir along with us kids.

I spent a lot of time from junior high onward making up songs and accompanying myself in the singer/songwriter fashion. My first love with songwriting was in the folk tradition. A return to that with this latest album, while being something novel, was a familiar ground with the simple melody and poetic lyrics I often wrote in my younger days. I went on to study jazz piano at University of Tennessee under the tutelage of renowned pianist and composer Donald Brown who had played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He encouraged me to pursue composing and we often traded ideas and tunes. 

Q: You're just building your new identity now — where do you see it going?

CR: With this latest album, I feel like I have stumbled upon what I was really meant to do, both artistically and from a spiritual perspective. I just wanted to clarify that. When I first conceived this album project, it was after being inspired by the music section in the movie “Brooklyn,” where Iarla o Lionaird sang a Sean-nos song, which was a kind of hauntingly beautiful melody and lilting in the voice that I had never heard before. It absolutely blew me away. It really thrilled my soul, and it had been such a long time since I had felt inspired by music that way.

Then I discovered another Sean nos singer on the Irish John Murray show. I ended up learning this same Gaelic folk song that she performed, and later e-met Saileog Ni Cheannabhain, the gifted singer on the show who introduced many to the distinctly Irish tradition of Sean-nos singing. Later, I had the opportunity to take a few lessons from her during the Covid lockdowns via Skype.

It was then that I was inspired to make an album that was a return to the early American hymn tradition, incorporating these lilting variations in the melody line (also known as ornamentation in sean-nos). The result is an amalgamation of American and Irish singer/songwriter tradition.

I had arrived at a crossroads in some personal struggles and in my addiction — and what appeared to be an end-of-the-road financial crisis. These hymns are meant to be an intimate, personal tribute to God, as he walked me through a series of struggles and helped me to overcome my suffering with his grace.

I also had the generous help of an old friend and talented producer, Matt Wilder, who had been around to see me when I hit rock bottom. He had worked with me back then, when my drinking problem kept getting in the way. When he saw how seriously I was committed to recovery, I was able to record these songs at his studio on a tight budget, after closing, just singing and playing piano together by myself for all the takes. He then selected my best live takes.

Clarissa Purcell K-minWe would later add Grammy award-winning fiddle player Jenee Fleenor and London Symphony musician/composer John Mock to the recordings. We are planning on hiring a backing band for future performances.

I obviously want to grow my audience and reach out to as many people as possible. In such a divided world we live in now I would like to restore some belief that there is something bigger out there that will bring us peace and serenity. I hope my songs focus on something other than politics. My hope is that this music will help “restore us to sanity” — myself included.

Q: Is your music Irish with American influences or American with Irish influences?

I am an American with Irish highlights. Yes, my husband is from Dublin, but I grew up in northern Virginia. My heritage is largely Irish/Scottish/and English according to my family tree.

Of late I see my main influence is Sean nos Celtic and spiritual music. I was not exposed to much American pop music growing up so I think my main influence is 1940/1950 blues, jazzand old school jazz standards of the Frank Sinatra era. Plus Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holliday, Peggy Lee and Etta James to mention just a few.

Growing up we had season tickets to Kennedy Center, and I was exposed to opera, symphonic music and performed in Handel’s Messiah along with family members at Columbia Baptist Church.

So old church hymns like “Amazing Grace,” classic composers of the Romantic era such as Chopin, and Rachmaninov and singers such as Eva Cassidy and Barbara Streisand were influences as well. 

But my many visits to Ireland had a transformative impact on my music going forward. The wistful beauty of the landscape, the romance of the storytelling tradition in Ireland’s music were all very inspiring. 

And meeting Chris had a similar impact on me as well. Chris came to the USA in 1990 but his feet are still planted firmly on Irish soil. All his family are there and he would bring me to seisuns in Kerry, Clare and Galway. A favorite stop off in Ireland is Gus O’ Connor’s pub in Doolin

I was very drawn to the Sean-nos’ style of singing and love listening to local Irish musicians, The Cranberries, Enya, Saileog O Cheannabhain, Iarla O Lionaird and thetraditional Irish group ‘Danu From County Kerry.

Q: How did you two meet?

CR: I met Chris later on after college at a small party with close friends. We hit it off right away. We have been visiting his large Irish family in Dublin ever since 2011. 

It was there in places like Doolin, Dingle and the West coast of Ireland that I learned about Irish seisuns. With my jazz background of improvisation, I was able to incorporate this beautiful, highly-ornamented singing style into my new album, “Be Still My Soul.” It is a bit of a challenge when recording to not change up the phrasing on each take though.

Purcell is my married name, Riddles is my maiden name. I use Clarissa Purcell for the ‘Be Still’ album and all my recent music with the ‘Celtic Spiritual’ influence. I use Clarissa Riddles on all my Jazz compositions.

This project was a new genre for me but I come from a very musical background, having sung and played piano since I was young. I grew up singing and playing church hymns. I started doing original music around 12 years of age. And then I majored in jazz piano in college.

Q: After having done this record, what plans do you have in the immediate and with your overall career.

CR: My future plans include finishing an album of love songs with producer Matt Wilder and the completed production of 10 more songs of this same kind that we’re already in the process of finishing — along with some favorite old American hymns.

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